THE recent hillside slips and resulting transport difficulties faced by Gisborne has demonstrated how tenuous road and rail links to the rest of New Zealand can be.
In the late 19th century, most journeys between Gisborne and major towns and cities of New Zealand were made by ship, as even a trip overland to somewhere as near as Ormond was fraught with difficulties — with reports of waist-high mud rendering the road impassable not uncommon during wintertime.
Venturing further afield, such as a trip to Wairoa could take on the appearance of a fairly major expedition.
For example, it was reported on January 17, 1880 that Captain Winter, captain of the Gisborne cricket team, had put into place all the necessary plans for a trip to play the Wairoa cricket eleven.
Setting off on a Saturday morning, they camped for the night — tents and provisions having preceded them by horse and cart.
Early the next morning, they reached Wairoa just in time to hear the church bells chiming for evening service.
They played the game on Monday, returning to Gisborne on Tuesday. Sadly, no report of the actual game is given.
Some idea of the nature of longer travel overland was given in a report by Mr. R.O. Stewart to Captain Porter and printed by the Poverty Bay Herald on February 9, 1881. He wrote of his four-day journey to Opotiki along a road where it was necessary to prepare for the journey by taking food for yourself and your horse, as there was no accommodation to be found on the route.
The road had been completed four years before, after Captain L. Simpson carried out a survey in the dense bush of the area to establish the track. Stewart noted however that the road had been neglected since, and the whole road was reported to be in a serious state of decay except for the Motu bridge, which Stewart described as a substantial structure of sawn timber.
Another bridge along the way, made only of punga, gave the writer a serious scare after it fell away underneath him, throwing the rider 8 feet down into the river, with his horse then landing on top of him.
Having been rescued by fellow travellers, and despite a seriously bruised thigh, Stewart continued on his journey negotiating “very many boggy places” and numerous fallen trees lying across the track. He gave the advice to any future traveller to carry an axe, as it was sometimes necessary to chop through trunks to be able to continue the trip — a task that sometimes could take several hours.
In other places, the road was so overgrown as to be “invisible’’, requiring the rider to dismount and force aside the bushes by hand. Sometimes the path was reduced to a few inches in width along “awful precipes”.
Even as Gisborne moved into the 20th century, travel to and from the town was a challenge.
A visitor who travelled from Gisborne to Tolaga Bay by coach wrote to the Poverty Bay Herald on June 15, 1905, to express disbelief at the journey they had undertaken.
The journey took place in heavy rain and the road was heavy going, especially between Okitu and Tatapouri. After Tatapouri the road ran along the beach (which it continued to do until 1920).
The visitor described how the coaches ploughed their way through not just the sand, but also the tide — so high that the “so-called coach road was nought but part and parcel of the bed of the ocean”.
Battling through the tide, one of the horses became loose and the coach driver had to leap out of the coach to refasten it.
The writer described how the driver should have been wearing a life belt —while he was securing his horse, he was continually being submerged by the waves crashing in around him. It was only maintaining a good hold on the harness that kept him from being washed away.
Although the writer’s coach did not get stuck, he noted that the driver of the third coach in the party had to ask its passengers to alight four times to allow the horses to drag it out of the sand.
Stopping at Pakarae for dinner at the hotel, and a warming in front of the log fires, the journey continued inland for a short distance before returning to the coastline because a further stretch of the road ran along the beach.
However, after just a mile the passengers were asked to alight and continue on foot, due to the condition of the road which was described as merely a rocky sea-swept beach.
After one of the coaches broke a wheel, the six men in the party decided to continue on foot. The road headed inland again, although going was slowed down by the amount of mud they had to wade through.
Finally, having battled through mud, waist-high streams, and an over-zealous ferryman at Uawa River demanding payment before he would cross, the intrepid travellers were reunited with those they had left to continue the journey in the remaining two coaches, and they counted their blessings that they were not in a prohibition district.
The writer stated that in all of his travels from North Cape to Bluff, he had never experienced such roads.
The Poverty Bay Herald, a few days later, voiced its agreement with the writer and bemoaned the fact that a journey of 35 miles took a whole day — adding that the roads in the East Coast district were a “disgrace to civilisation and undeserving of the name of road”.